Sweet Showdown: Sugar vs. Honey

Do you know which is the better choice for your health- honey or sugar? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Do you know which is the better choice for your health- honey or sugar? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

It seems like half the people we know are looking for easy ways to cut back on their overall sugar intake.  For some people, the desire to cut back on refined sugar is for health reasons like diabetes, for other people it is related to losing weight or lowering their total body fat.  But no matter the reason, we get a lot of questions about how to get the sweetness without the sugar.   One area where we get a lot of questions relates to the differences between honey and sugar and whether or not honey is better for you than refined sugar.  Since this can be a confusing topic, we thought we would host a little “sweetener showdown” to see if we can answer some of the most pressing questions in the honey vs. sugar debate.

What’s the Difference?

The primary difference between refined or table sugar and honey is what they are made from.  Table sugar comes from sugar beets or sugar cane while honey is a bee byproduct.  Both sweet substances are made of glucose and fructose and both are fairly high in calories.  However, they do differ in composition in one key way.  In table sugar, the glucose and fructose bind together to create a form of sucrose.  In honey, the glucose and fructose are independent of one another and contains at least 25 oligosaccharides which become food for our intestinal flora and fauna.

There is also a difference when it comes to caloric content, and it might surprise you.  One tablespoon of table sugar contains 49 calories which is less than the 68 calories contained in the same amount of honey.  This means that if calories are the main thing you are looking to cut, you aren’t going to save any by switching over to honey.

There is another key difference however that might make the calorie difference moot.  Our bodies handle the digestion of table sugar and honey differently.  When we eat table sugar or products made with it, our small intestines and liver must do all the heavy lifting in order to convert it into something we can digest.  This is caused by the compositional difference mentioned above because our stomachs cannot digest sucrose.  Honey has a different story.  Because the fructose and glucose in honey are not bound to one another, our body can process them as part of the normal digestive cycle.   When taken together, this simply means that honey is easier for our bodies to digest.

The other major difference between table sugar and honey is where they fall on the glycemic index.  Where something falls on this index indicates what kind of impact that substance has on our blood sugar.  Substances with low glycemic index values cause minimal increases in blood sugar and the higher the value, the more blood sugar is impacted.   Honey has a glycemic index value of 55 while sugar’s glycemic index value is 68.  This simply means that honey impacts blood sugar to a lesser degree than sugar.

Which is Better?

In this sweet showdown, the answer really depends on what you are trying to achieve.  If calories are all that count, then sugar is the clear winner.  However, if you are looking for a way to sweeten things up without upping your blood sugar too, honey may be the better choice.

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